Country Living Series

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A giant experiment

In the past, whenever we wanted to raise some chickens for the freezer, we opted for Cornish Crosses. This hybrid bird is bred to gain weight and size with a speed awesome to behold.


The trouble is, these birds are freaky. Their bodies can't withstand the speed of their weight gain, and if you don't butcher them at about eight weeks, they either dislocate or break legs, or their organs start shutting down.

Plus -- and this is important when it comes to food sustainability -- they can't be bred. Don looked into what kind of "cross" a Cornish Cross is, and let's just say their lineage is complex and precise and not effectively reproducible on a homestead without a lot of dedicated work.

We've butchered "dual-purpose" chickens such as Rhode Island Reds, etc., and frankly the result is disappointing -- too small, not much meat, etc.

So -- what are the alternatives when it comes to meat chickens?

Last year we decided to get serious about this question, and looked into a breed called Jersey Giants.


These are heritage chickens who used to be the industry standard for meat birds until the fast-growing (freaky weird) Cornish Crosses supplanted them. Roosters average thirteen pounds, hens average eleven. They're decent egg-layers, extremely docile (they'd better be, at that size!), cold-hardy, and go broody (although the hens are so large they sometimes break the eggs).


According to the Wikipedia article, "The Jersey Giant was created by John and Thomas Black; with the intent of replacing the turkey, the kind of poultry used primarily for meat at the time."

Altogether they sound like an excellent and sustainable source for chicken meat without the weird freakishness of Cornish Crosses. So earlier this week we ordered fifteen birds -- 10 pullets and 5 straight-run (unsexed) chicks, which hopefully will include some roosters. They're due to arrive in early June. We don't intend to butcher many (if any) at first, but instead will start incubating eggs and establishing a flock before putting anyone in the freezer.


I'm excited about this new poultry venture. If it works out, we may transition solely to Jersey Giants and let our current flock die out from attrition.

If anyone has experience with these critters, I'd be interested in hearing your perspective!

30 comments:

  1. We've been raising them for about 6 years. They give great egg output, very large too. They are very good for meat as well. We butcher the older ones at about 2 years and they stew well. They are very docile but when they go broody they will peck you when you collect eggs they are nesting on. It's a hard peck but their beaks aren't very sharp so no damage is really done. Our flock is almost exclusively Jersey's with some barred rocks, americana's and reds.

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  2. Ah, I just lost my favorite Black Jersey Giant a few days ago from an impacted crop, which I have never experienced before. They are a delightful bird but my two were broody to the extreme. They would try to hatch anything with a slightly round look to it. They would set and brood for days on end with eyes rolled back, purring that cute little chicken-purr. It must have been disappointing for them. I was hoping for some new hatchlings that needed a home and I was going to simply tuck them under Moneypenny and Henrietta (like you did with Smoky!) to give them some motherly relief, but it never happened. One drawback on the Black Jersey Giants - mine lay average size eggs. For a 10lb hen, I thought they would be much bigger but my smaller hens lay more impressive eggs. I love this breed but will no longer buy any.

    Personally, I never cared for the Cornish Crosses because of genetic manipulation that I felt was way beyond the norm, if you get my drift. I don't think I would eat them even if I raised them.

    Ask yourself, what did our ancestors do? First, I think that they didn't eat anywhere near as much chicken as we do nowadays. When you are self-sustaining, how many of your flock can you kill simply because everyone wants buffalo chicken fingers for dinner twice a week? NOT happening! I think the Sunday Chicken Dinner with gravy and 'fixins' was looked forward to for a reason in past days. Personally, we have vegetarian (canned and fresh) alternatives that store for many years and make a nice meal with veggies. Bottom line: We all might need to rethink what we normally eat every day/every week during a crisis. And if Patrice and other small-holders can come up with a good alternative, we will be lining up to buy whatever they are selling.

    God Bless,
    Janet in MA

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    1. Janet, you are so right about the amount of meat/poultry in our diets today as opposed to those "Sunday chicken dinners" of my childhood. My grandmas always managed to have chicken on Sundays, but there were many meatless meals throughout the week. Beans, potatoes, eggs, biscuits, etc. filled us up along with plenty of green beans. None of us starved, and none of us were obese in those days.

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    2. janet,
      so right. most meat was Sunday dinner.
      sometimes bacon at breakfast or dinner. occasional sausage.
      we had beans, peanut butter, eggs,and some cheese all of which were the proteins.
      you cannot kill off your layers like that or you are left with nothing.
      we did have gravy from bacon drippings, though , and you are right-- we were built like toothpicks.
      wennever stopped moving and we were sometimes hungry but never starved--thank God.
      my daddy did go hungry often as a child. people are spoiled these days, i among them.
      deb h.

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  3. No real experience with the Giants, sorry...but I concur on the freakish nature of the Cornish Cross. I thought the Barred Rocks we had matured in a hurry(and they do compared to like...cats and dogs)...but some friends did Cornish Cross's...and I swear you could SEE them growing. Ick.

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  4. My Mom has raised many heritage breeds of chickens, and still raises a few varieties, but not any good for meat. It used to be a small business for her selling egg layers. She also used to raise some Cornish cross every year for our meat. She was going to order some of the Freedom Rangers, but I found an article on Mother Earth News' blog from someone that raised them and said they are no different then the C.C. (other than color) and come from the same place. Here is a link http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/wrong-about-freedom-rangers-zb0z10zgri.asp
    So she decided to get standard Cornish. They will grow slower, but should produce a nice meaty bird, and as far as I know have not been genetically manipulated, plus we can continue to raise our own.
    She's also just placed an order for some Midget White turkeys. They are supposed to be a nice small turkey that breeds true, lays a good amount of eggs and is well fleshed. We shall see how they turn out.
    Kimberly

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  5. We ordered Cornish Crosses again this year and dislike them for all the reasons you listed, but especially for the lack of sustainability. I'll be watching your experiment intently.

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  6. Double your order. It is as easy to raise 50 chickens as it is 15. Then you will have some for the freezer.

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  7. I've always kept Red Rangers for meat - but that does mean ordering new chicks each year since they are also hybrids that don't breed true. I just liked them because they do so well free-ranged, and there is a long window for processing them. I definitely want to hear how Jersey Giants work out for you, since I'd like to not be ordering new meat chicks each year, too.

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  8. We stopped most of the broken bones when we had a Calcium supplement out for the CC. Long time ago and do not know what we used.

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  9. I ordered 30 black Jersey Giant hens and 4 males (from straight runs) to split with a friend. My chicks hatched 6 April, so they are 12 days old right now. We lost two (one arrived dead and one died after several days but had shown no signs of illness, did not have pasty bottom). I hope they are as good at free ranging as the New Hampshire reds and the White Wyandottes. My white wyandottes are supposedly good eating, but I probably won't eat the last two I have. I live within site of the river and the eagles have been hard on them (had more eagles in Wyoming but we also had more rabbits and such they ate).
    My only disappointment with the Jersey Giants so far is with myself. I guess I should have specified to either separate or mark the males so the order could be divided with my friend, as the hatchery just put them all together. I guess when we can identify roos, we can balance the two flocks out at that time.
    Looking forward to hearing about your successes!
    sidetracksusie

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  10. About raising meat breeds for chickens. I've been raising them for about 2 1/2 years now, and personally had few issues with the Cornish Cross breed of chicken. I even think I raised them longer than eight weeks too because we like BIGGER birds. A couple years ago I tried the Red Broilers and found them to be more efficient in production and taste. The color is also pretty. Some trouble we did have with them was the hawks got a few, but never seemed to bother the white Cornish Cross breed. I don't think the Cornish Cross are as hardy as the Red Broilers either. The Red's take longer to get bigger, but the results are excellent! :) Hope this helps and God bless your chicken venture! ;)

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  11. When raising a variety of chicken breeds would you have to worry about males breeding with the other type and creating a "cross" chick, or do they generally only breed with their own type?

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    1. They will definitely cross with other breeds.

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    2. So far, the roosters have shown themselves eager to breed other roosters, dead chickens of either sex, ducks of either sex who don't run fast enough to get away, a rumpled mat in front of the door, a sleeping dog, and a pair of my shoes that I left on the stoop. They're not particular about sticking to their own variety, species, or animate objects.

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    3. Hahaha! Swampwoman, thank you for the colorful response! I guess I'll just have to choose one dual breed to stick with, or just be okay with the cross breeding!

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  12. I have had white Jersey Giants in the past and look forward to getting some again. I like white because the pluck out cleaner, though they are rumored to be easier for predators to see. I keep a couple of purebred roosters over the winter each year; this year it is likely to be barred rock or buff orpington. I enjoy the large dual purpose breeds and plan on interesting crosses. I butcher all roosters (except the 2 I save for the following spring) and older hens each year, and try for 1-2 dozen new hens each year. I am pleased with the amount of meat I get from the dual purpose breeds even though it takes longer and takes more feed. I brine the chickens and can roast them (even older biddies) and have them be tender and delicious. I am doing well this year with broody hens, and have successfully had them raise feed store chicks. I also have 3 sitting on large clutches. I am hoping it is early enough in the year that I will have new egg layers before winter sets in!
    Good luck on the JG. I really do enjoy these nice Large gentle birds.
    Brenda

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  13. We are working towards meat birds for next year. We're just finishing up our first year with a laying flock. We've decided no Cornish Crosses for the all the reason you and others have cited. but haven't picked an alternative. We'll be looking into Jersey Giants and Red Broilers, and will be watching to see how your flock works out.

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  14. We have a mixed flock, but our rooster is a purebred Jersey Giant. He is beautiful and very sweet. He will eat from the children's hands. The best thing is that no matter the breed of hen his offspring is large. Getting ready to butcher 6 of his sons and they are all huge. I think you will be happy with your giants. We are and will always have some in our flock.

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  15. Interesting! You mention chickens once in a while but never in detail. As new chicken owners as of this January, I'd love to see pics. of how you house your chicks, chickens, etc.

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  16. Patrice, I can't remember if you've talked about this before, but the source of your chickens matters greatly. Hatcheries have been breeding the pretty birds away from size and meat and more towards egg production. The average backyard flock owner no longer wants to eat their chickens, but just get eggs, lots and lots of eggs, and let their chickens pass peacefully when they get old. The hatcheries have responded to this. Their chickens now have pinched tails, smaller carcasses so that they put more energy into egg laying sooner, and smaller abdomens that cause burnout(extreme egg-laying for a year or two, then keeling over dead from pushing their bodies too hard).

    The answer is to get old-school chickens that are still bred to be old-school. A good(not great) egg laying capability with a meaty carcass when they get a little older. The cockerels are a decent size at 15-20 weeks. Or if you hatch too many cockerels, you can spatchcock them at a younger age.

    The best places to find them is at either poultry shows, or online at http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/849075/heritage-large-fowl-phase-ii
    This is how I found my White Rocks. At 10 months old, the cockerels each weigh 10 lbs, and the pullets weighed about 6 lbs.
    If you go to the Back Yard Chickens website, just start asking questions, same at a poultry show if you go. The people there are great and will give you info to help you pick a breed, or help you to find the real breeders of true fowl.

    Cheers,

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  17. Most dual purpose breeds we have tried, the meat is as tough as nails. I mean even ground up into chicken salad it still left you chewing until your jaws hurt! I'll keep raising the modern broilers, but would be interested in the results of your experiment! BTW, apple cider vinegar in their drinking water significantly reduces a lot of their issues. Have fun!

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  18. 40+ yrs raising chickens, all around bird in my view is the Wyandotte. Although fairly new to market, if strictly meat is what your after buy Red Freedom Rangers and butcher at 10 to12 weeks. The Rangers are much healthier bird and you don't have the problems with sudden death issues. I've tried all and i do mean all breeds over the years, Wyandottes are the best. I live in Mi and I use an LED light in short days of winter, give them shelter from drafts and No heat lamp, and yet all my girls give up the egg daily all winter long. Good Luck! Oh one more thing, the Rangers at roasting time, hope you have a large roasting pan....

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  19. The fast-growing chickens are not hybrids: they're genetically modified, and a crime against God.

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    1. Cornish crosses aren't transgenic animals/genetically modified. They are heavily selected for certain trains, often to the detriment of their health. Like bland tasting quick growing tomato's.

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  20. we grow jersey giant rhode island red cross for meat birds they grow big and fast feady for butchery in 12 to 16 weeks .

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    1. This is what I want to do. Keep a few rhode Island reds for eggs and use the offspring for meat. With a jersey giant rooster, the chicks should weigh out pretty good. What weight do you usually get?

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    2. We're just getting into our 2nd generation of birds, so we haven't butchered yet. In looking at our two mature roosters, I'm guess a mature Jersey Giant will dress out at 7 or 8 lbs.

      - Patrice

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  21. You might want to also look into Turkens... we ended up with a rooster as our "mystery chick" last time I ordered chicks.. Chick ended up being a roo, and we ended up with him in the freezer, as he was too much for the girls.. but he grew super fast and he was big..

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